Monday, 14 September 2015

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Of course, this was the big story in the publishing world the last year or so. First, there was all the concern over how it was found, and whether or not Harper Lee wanted it printed. Then, of course, it was published and the shit hit the fan when it was revealed that Atticus Finch, personified to all of us by Gregory Peck as a bastion of rectitude, was a racist. People went berserk.

I tried to stay away from all the controversy while it was going on. I was aware of the freaking out over Atticus, but wasn't sure if that was minor or large in the book overall. I knew I'd read it for myself eventually, and didn't want to colour my perceptions too much. Then my book club decided that since several people had read it already, we should move the book into the September slot. (I'm going to miss the meeting for my wedding anniversary. Books versus my relationship - sorry, guys, I need the evening with my husband.)

So I read it, and maybe it's because I've only read To Kill A Mockingbird once, back in high school, and don't have indelible memories of it, but I didn't find the storyline where Atticus is a racist upsetting. I actually thought it was a strong statement, although Lee wrote this before To Kill a Mockingbird, and in some ways, a more provocative theme than that book. If To Kill A Mockingbird told us that the law sometimes fails Black people, even with a good white man on their side, Go Set A Watchman tells us that even our idols have feet of clay. And will come up with arguments and a smile to make them seem noble instead of pernicious.

But it isn't as good a book. While the first half is really quite good, it gets far too didactic in the second half, becoming an in-depth conversation on the subject, where we are repeatedly told rather than shown about life in the South at the start of desegregation. It's a lengthy treatise on states' rights, and how they're different from being racist, but then back into a lengthy discussion of the kind of racist Atticus is, which is the kind who can think Black people are getting too many rights before they're ready for them, and sit approvingly by while a white man froths at the mouth and threatens violence, but still think he's a good man because he'd want Black people to be done right by the law.

Scout's uncle at the end tries to argue that she's the bigot, more or less because this makes her angry. Atticus won't budge any more than she will, but he does it with a smile and somehow that makes her the one who is immune to reason or change. That was frustrating as hell. But her journey of disillusionment was interesting, finding out that your childhood heroes are sometimes also assholes. You may still love them, and must reconcile the difference.

If only the style didn't fall apart at the end, I would argue that this has the potential to be a powerful book, and one with a more difficult message for white folks to hear than To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it's good to have our heroes be complicit, and have to realize that not everyone who talks a good game means it. That maybe just making sure the law is carried out, knowing that when you're not around it won't be, isn't damn well good enough. That racism extends beyond the law, into types of decisions that have obviously hurt Calpurnia, Scout's beloved surrogate mother over her entire life and will continue to hurt her.

If only the book held together. It reads like a first novel. It's messy, becomes too didactic at the end, and is not as good a book as To Kill a Mockingbird. But in many ways it carries a more potent message, one that does not allow white people to see ourselves comfortably in Atticus Finch the way we would like.

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